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Green River

Late on a Wednesday night, Kunal Sah and three of his buddies from high school are playing video basketball and eating pizza in the owners' quarters at the Ramada Inn. They talk about music and girls and tell funny stories about one another, the usual stuff of 18-year-olds.

But unlike his friends who graduated from Green River High last spring, Kunal doesn't have much time for extended adolescence. There is the hotel sign to be fixed. A valve in the water system needs to be checked. He has to schedule maids and the maintenance man. And, of course, there are the guests, checking in from late afternoon into the night.

Even though it's the slow season, the never-ending to-do list seems overwhelming. But like it or not, the fortunes of Kunal's family are riding on him. The two-time Utah spelling champ from this small Emery County town is now running the family business, Green River's Ramada Inn. That means night and day, Kunal will be sticking close to the 46-room motel.

"When you're 18, you are young, wild and free," said Kunal, who turned 18 in September. "But I'm not wild and free. My father told me I had to put my desires aside for a while."

Kunal's parents, Ken and Sarita Sah, remain behind in India, where Kunal lived with them until returning to Green River after his birthday. The couple returned to their native country in July 2007 when, after residing legally in the United States for 16 years, they lost their bid for permanent residency.

Ken arrived in the U.S. in 1990 on a student visa to study aircraft mechanics in Oakland, Calif. He later applied for asylum on the basis that Hindus were being mistreated in his home state of Bihar, where Muslims hold a significant majority. About that time, Sarita obtained a visa in India and joined him.

As the aircraft industry waned, the couple took various jobs in restaurants and motels in the Oakland area and scrimped in hopes of saving enough to buy their own business. In 1997, they discovered a small Budget Inn for sale in a place called Green River, Utah. They jumped at the opportunity. Eventually, the Sahs saved enough to build the Ramada Inn, two miles up the road.

But the opening of their new hotel in 2001 coincided with an unexpected ruling from immigration officials after almost a decade. Their application for asylum was suddenly denied. For the next six years, they unsuccessfully appealed the ruling before voluntarily departing for India.

Kunal, who was born in America and is a citizen by birthright, remained behind with his uncle, D.C. Prasad, in Green River to get an education and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

That dream has been shattered. Now Kunal must save his parents' American dream.

Last month, his uncle went back to India to be with his wife and 3-year-old child. Seeing no other way of holding on to their life's work, Ken and Sarita sold the Budget Inn and told Kunal he had to hold things together at the Ramada.

"My mom and dad have extremely high expectations of me and I can't let them down," Kunal said. "This Ramada is 15 or 16 years of their life."

Sheri Vetere, who works as a secretary at Green River High School, is among the residents who wonder how it will all play out.

"He's super smart and could do a lot with his life," she said. "But Kunal can be his own worst enemy. Sometimes he thinks he's smarter than everyone else."

Kunal hits the wall • The Sahs' predicament wasn't helped by Kunal's forced exit from Green River two years ago. Just after he turned 16, Kunal was arrested and wound up in juvenile detention. The juvenile court yanked him from Green River, where he was a straight-A student in his junior year, and placed him in foster care in Price. Eventually, the court allowed Kunal to travel to India and live under the supervision of his parents. When he turned 18, Kunal was freed from the juvenile court's jurisdiction.

The juvenile records of his misbehavior are sealed. Kunal and his parents won't share the details but say he made serious mistakes and has learned a hard lesson.

Even Kunal doesn't quite understand why he made those poor choices. He admits to being angry about his parents' departure. They were a close family, and Ken and Sarita were involved in every aspect of their only child's life, particularly his education. His uncle, attempting to fill the parental void, was even more strict. All of it took a toll on him.

"I just live day to day now and I try not to think about the last five years," he said. "But when you're reminiscing, you think, Mom and Dad are missing. They're supposed to be here."

Juvenile detention, a foster home in Price and the move to India meant no diploma from Green River High School. Kunal did finish a high-school program from India. But there will be no college for him. Not soon, anyway.

And while he's back in Green River among lifelong friends, Kunal said his homecoming is bittersweet. He senses that not everyone in town is happy about his return.

"There are a lot of people who admire my dad. He came here and made a success and nobody expected that. And with the spelling bee, I earned respect," Kunal said. "But after I got into trouble, all that respect went down the drain. Some people give me a dirty look and are doubting me."

Richard Wilson, one of Kunal's close friends who also is 18, said Kunal has to show folks in Green River that he's grown past the trouble of two years ago. "He has to prove himself. I think in a couple of months, things will calm down and go back to normal."

Among Kunal's biggest supporters is Toni Bettino, one of his foster parents in Price. She acknowledges he is bright, but says Kunal is like any other teen despite his smarts and unique story.

"They do stupid things and they get in trouble," she said. "What happens to us as teenagers shapes us as adults. I think he learned from his mistakes."

Bettino describes the Sahs' predicament as "heartbreaking."

"He'll do great things," she said. "It's just hard that his mom and dad are not here to help. He's chained to that hotel now."

Ken and Sarita would do anything legally allowable to return to Green River. The couple continue to seek re-entry into the United States. But how that might happen remains unclear.

Ken would like someone from Utah's congressional delegation to step in with special legislation for their case. Sen. Orrin Hatch's office has helped the Sahs navigate the immigration system, but is not willing to legislate an immigration waiver on their behalf.

Neither Ken nor Sarita can visit the United States at this point, although Ken is pursuing a visitor's visa. Whether he can obtain one is uncertain.

Their best hope may be Kunal. When he turns 21, he can sponsor his parents' return to the U.S. That process could take six to 18 months, once initiated three years from now. Kunal understands too well the gravity of the situation and hopes they return sooner, rather than later.

"The main thing we are aiming for is for my parents to get back," Kunal said. "It's extremely difficult for one person of 18 to run this place."

In a telephone interview from their home in Dwarka, a suburb of New Delhi, Sarita said she misses her son and worries about him.

"It was a tough decision, but we didn't have any other choice," she said. "Everything we have is in the United States. Our lives are not settled."

Sarita wants to see her Kunal go to college "like a normal kid."

"Time is going by and it's not going to come back," she said. "He's a smart kid and he's doing very well. But we're scared."

Kunal's father has his own doubts.

"He's not of the age to have that kind of responsibility. He has to grow up fast," Ken said. "If anything happened, any emergency, what kind of options do we have? I'm not just worried — I'm spending my life standing on one leg."

Pulling for Kunal • Despite its breathtaking setting between the Book Cliffs and the San Rafael Swell, Green River has never been a tourist destination like Moab, only 50 miles away. The lifeblood of this town along windswept Interstate 70 is travelers en route between national parks. They might stay a night at one of Green River's nine motels, grab a meal at one of the town's seven or eight eateries and fuel up at one of a half-dozen gas stations. It can make for an uncertain economy, if several boarded-up filling stations and motels are any barometer.

Nonetheless, the town of 950 souls is a community. And Green River High School, which includes grades 7 to 12, is at its center. It was there that Kunal won accolades as a student and champion speller, and was elected president of his ninth-grade class.

Green River Mayor Pat Brady teaches math and science at the school, where Kunal was one of his students.

"I don't think there is anyone at this school who doesn't like Kunal," he said. "When he got into trouble, we didn't like him any less. But we were terribly disappointed."

Like many people in Green River, Brady offered praise for Ken and Sarita and said Kunal would never have gotten into trouble if they had not been forced to leave. He worries about his former student.

"I think it's a lot of pressure to put on a young guy," he said of Kunal's newest challenge. "I think most of us wish him well."

And like most people in Green River, Allyson Mecham knows Kunal competed in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., and that he was a bright star at school. Her daughter was in Kunal's class, and she worries that running the hotel is too much for an 18-year-old.

"I'd like to see him go to college someday," Mecham said. "It's too bad, all that has happened to the Sahs."

Kunal does have help at the Ramada. Duane Uptin, the maintenance man, has worked there for a number of years and pitches in at the front desk if need be. But the business end of things is up to Kunal, who calls his parents almost every day.

"I do all the paperwork, all the accounting. It's stressful," Kunal said. "But I have to do it. And I go over it all with my dad."

If he doesn't call his parents, they fret.

"Any day he forgets to call, we can't even go to bed," said Ken. "We don't know what has happened to him, or what he's done or has not done."

About two months into his new job, Kunal seems more calm than his parents. And he says he is determined.

"I'm mature enough to do this," he said. "Anybody who doubts me, I will be able to answer them with my actions."

The backstory

Read more about the saga of Ken and Sarita Sah.

Utah teen growing up without exiled parents •

Exiled parents, teen dream of returning to U.S. •